Frank Gutch Jr: Look What They’ve Done to my Country, Ma! (Thoughts inspired by Alistair Cooke, Header inspired by Melanie Safka); Plus Notes…..
Pardon me while I get serious for a moment. My country seems intent upon flushing itself down the toilet and before it does I would like to share a few words with you about– Alistair Cooke? But he is (or was) not even American! True, but he is (or was) more American than many of the people who portray themselves as “patriots” (I put it in quotes to point out that the word has been cheapened and no longer holds value to me). I too think it strange that I would look to a “foreigner” to make my case about The Unites States, but it seems natural.
I went to a repertoire movie theater back in the mid-eighties to see a showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” before it began showing up on TV on a regular basis and while it was excellent, I could not believe the short subject (that’s what they used to call short films tossed in as a bonus back then).
I had never heard of “Mousterpiece Theater” and laughed until I cried at the parody of the PBS TV juggernaut, right down to the cartoon replica of Alistair Cooke (presented as “Alistair Cookie”) or was it George Plimpton, as it was on others? Truth be told, I was quite disappointed when I learned just a few years ago that it was produced by Disney and not some small independent film company who, like Herman’s Hermits, just fell into something good. I keep hoping that the short film I saw really was a cartoon, but I remember no more than that it impressed me to the point of telling everyone I knew. I mean, no wonder no one was impressed. Disney. Who knew?
Regardless, the choice of Alistair Cooke could not have impressed me more as he was as much a caricature of himself as anyone has ever been. I remember him, of course, from his “Omnibus” days when, on Sunday afternoons, he brought the arts into the living room of the old homestead, actually making me forget about cartoons and rock ‘n’ roll for an hour or so. I did a search today looking for some of the episodes just to refresh my memory but could not find the one which lodged itself in my head above all others— a live studio presentation of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs.” I know! Brainiac stuff! But it somehow got through to me. There was some about Cooke’s presentation which made me want to watch whatever was on the screen, regardless of subject.
I mean, what other program could get Sugar Ray Robinson and Gene Kelly to hoof it together? (Sugar Ray wasn’t bad, either)
To the point. I have been an Alistair Cooke fan since those Omnibus days. I learned from those broadcasts and was later surprised to find that Cooke had a journalistic background partially based upon his interest in America. My country. A country to which Cooke moved, partially I assume because of his work (he wrote about the States for British magazines and newspapers and radio and, later, television) but also because he became as enthralled with its history as myself. At first he seemed to care for my country but it wasn’t long before I realized that the “seeming” was real. He talked and wrote about it with an emotional as much as subjective journalistic bent. And he knew what he was talking about.
His thirteen-part TV series, America: A Personal History of the United States, was an award-winner and captured large audiences in both the UK and the US. He basically covered the history of the white settlement of the country, keying on regions and time periods. He was objective and fair, which meant calling out personages and their decisions regarding “dispossession of Native Americans,” slavery, the money classes (the basis of corporatism), militarism, and many other topics.
He theorized that railroads were the big reason that the US has remained unified, that the States would have survived as regional powers had the progress of the railroads and its aftermath had not taken place. He pointed out that before the assassination of President Kennedy, there was no federal law against killing an American president. He corrected me in my assumption that Brown vs. Board of Education was a case originating in Kansas and not Alabama nor Mississippi, as so many people had told me (another case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, people’s perceptions based upon scenes from after the ruling). You want to know how close we, the people, came to continuing our segregated ways? Watch this:
Justice Warren: We unanimously hold that separate but equal has no place in the Constitution. That was a main argument to find for the States. Had not the Chief Justice had a heart attack and died during the proceedings, it could just as easily have been Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson’s finding but in the opposite.
The Supreme Court used to mean something to me. I did not always agree with its findings but there used to be a fairness to the way they did it. It is a balancing act they do, interpreting a poorly written document (at least, for our times) and applying specifics to the vague. These days, speech = money, corporations = people, outright lying is okay. The once supreme court has come off its tracks. As Cooke put it, “When the Supreme Court allows too much or too little to the majority, the United States is in trouble.” Methinks we are in trouble.
When I was young— in the fifties— the State of Oregon supposedly had a law, either understood or on the books, that automatic weapons were illegal and you were allowed only three shells in the magazine of a shotgun. Today, the NRA and its members argue that they should not only be allowed automatic weapons but any weapon they see fit to own. They use the Second Amendment as a shield against any attempt to circumvent their rights to bear arms. My father would be rolling over in his grave, if he had one. He had experienced the madness of arms and knew the dangers in the best of situations. He watched a fellow soldier die in a hail of bullets fired from a Browning Automatic Rifle placed upon a footlocker without the safety on. He saw more than one soldier killed or wounded on the infiltration range because they raised their heads or butts with live fire streaming above them. He knew that handing a weapon to a madman was sure trouble and that that trouble was geometrically multiplied by making the weapon automatic. He would have agreed with Cooke’s argument that the Second Amendment needed amending to make any kind of common sense, to wit:
I worry about this country. I remember knee-jerk reactions by people in a number of instances— the attacks on people of middle-eastern (or seemingly middle-eastern) descent during the Iran hostage crisis back in 1979 on the University of Washington campus (and probably other university campuses); the reactions toward people of Muslim faith after 9/11; the internment of the Japanese during WWII; our own country’s attack on its own soldiers during the Bonus March of 1932, during which our own General Douglas MacArthur attacked and destroyed the shantytown village of veterans of WWI. I heard the term “raghead” way too many times after the US invaded Afghanistan. I never want to hear “Love it or leave it” or “My country, right or wrong” ever again, having heard them too many times when I was protesting against the Viet Nam War, even while I was serving in the Army. Everyone has thoughts on everything anymore and mostly those thoughts are written in stone with little real knowledge to back them up. There is something bad wrong. I can feel it. And it has nothing to do with Mexicans taking our jobs or people using food stamps to buy candy bars.
Cooke had it down when he used a phrase he had heard in the past— “Liberty is the luxury of self-discipline.” He continued: “Historically, those peoples that did not discipline themselves had discipline thrust on them from the outside. That is why the normal cycle in the life and death of great nations has been first a powerful tyranny broken by revolt, the enjoyment of liberty, the abuse of liberty — and back to tyranny again. As I see it, in this country — a land of the most persistent idealism and the blandest cynicism — the race is on between its decadence and its vitality.” This country being the United States.
In his writings, Cooke compared the decline of the Roman Empire to what is happening in the States. Certain happenings seem to foreshadow our decline. Such as 1) a love of show and luxury. You only have to watch TV to see that. The more luxurious the better as far as the American people are concerned. 2) A widening gap between the very rich and the very poor. One of the most talked about subjects in this country anymore, it seems. 3) The exercise of military might in places remote from the centers of power. Iraq? Afghanistan? How many more countries are we toying with, militarily? 4) An obsession with sex. And here I thought it was only me. 5) Freakishness in the Arts masquerading as originality and enthusiasm pretending to creativeness. I know some people will not like this, but Lady Gaga is only the tip of this iceberg. And 6) A general desire to live off the State, whether it is a junkie on welfare or a government-subsidized airline. In a word, that Washington— Big Daddy— will provide.
These were all points made by Edward Gibbon in his tome The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Reasons the Empire failed. We are on that track, sports fans. If you don’t see it, you are delusional.
One thing. Cooke, on his album Talk About America, lays out the post-Civil War problems in the South. He likens it to a separate country, one in which Southerners were made second-class citizens and forced to bow to the carpetbaggers. This, I am thinking, is the biggest problem besides corporatism that the United States faces. They hate us Northerners, pure and simple. They must, or how could they foist upon us politicians of such love of power and greed and lack of understanding how a country and world should operate. Just as the carpetbaggers exacted revenge, so now do the Southerners? Is this what is happening? My God! I look at such personages as Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and Rick Perry and winder how anyone but the truly ignorant could ever support such politicians, yet there they are. If it weren’t for the destructive powers of such people I would almost laugh at this perfect act of revenge.
The country is getting torn apart and I can’t quite see a solution to the problems. The system is failing. Maybe it has already failed and we just don’t realize it. But I think the thing that bothers me most is how can a State like Texas us give us bands like Churchwood and The Juke Jumpers and yet vote for the assholes they vote for. Greg Abbott? He is an embarrassment to humanity, just as is Rick Perry. Thank God for the music.
Notes….. The first time I really started listening to Bow Thayer was when I saw a video a few years ago of a dress-wearing guitarist, male, onstage with No Small Children. It was a headslap moment largely because it was so cool. I figured if a guy does that, he is worthy of watching closely. Since then, I have watched a handful of videos which show Thayer a force with whom to be reckoned on the vinyl shores. He is a leader, not a follower. As this brand spanking new video shows. From his upcoming Sundowser album, here is So We Build:
Club me with a two-by-four. I have been a fan and supporter of Bill Jackson and Pete Fidler for years, Bill and Pete being the Australian equivalent to David Olney and Sergio Webb, and through osmosis found Ruth Hazleton, who when I first heard her name was playing shows with Bill and Pete (I do believe that Ruth and Bill are married, but who knows what kinds of relationships them crazy Aussies have, being Down Under and all). Anyway, she included a copy of her new album recorded with Kate Burke titled Declaration, their fifth, it turns out and I am feeling more isolated than ever. The eerie beginning of The Declaration just introduced me to a duo I wish I had known from the beginning, the music laying across me like a shroud. As if it were meant to be, the album immediately thereafter goes into Katy Cruel, a traditional tune “inspired by versions from both Karen Dalton and Linda Thompson and I leaf through the booklet to find that a handful of tracks are traditional, songs pulled from deep in the well. Only two originals, one by Kate (The Freeze) and one by Ruth (Hearts of Sorrow), each continuing a folk tradition as embedded in the fabric of Australia as it is in the UK and the States. Both songs capture my sense of a world going if not already gone mad, the sense of individuality and brotherhood seemingly vanishing in this chaotic and somewhat cruel world in which psychopaths appear to be in control. From the liner notes— “Inspired by a short story by E. Annie Proulx, The Freeze describes intense, unmanageable but undeniable love in a time of intolerance. It is dedicated to those whose relationships remain officially unacknowledged, if not openly vilified, by societies around the world.” Sound familiar? I guess the States is not the only country with bigots and asshats popping out of the woodwork in heretofore unimaginable numbers. As for Ruth’s Hearts of Sorrow, this: “Both a lament and call-to-arms in regard to the cruelty and sadness of the times we live in; our lack of respect toward our indigenous brothers and sisters, asylum seekers and the greed of multinational corporations who continue to prioritize profit above the welfare of the earth and its people.” I couldn’t have said it better my own self. This is folk the way it used to be. This is an album full of stories we should be paying attention to and learning from. I will give you the the very beginning. You take it from there.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies, there was this band I discovered (thanks to a few friends) known as The Flock. They were rock basically but brought in jazz influences as well as prog and ambient music. The new The OF album, Escape Goat, brings home the feel of The Flock and Zappa and a few of the prog bands out of the UK (mostly, for me, Van der Graaf Generator). I have been listening to the album once a day (I have to limit myself because there are other projects I need to complete) and am impressed, indeed. I love bands which play around the fringes and The OF do that. Here is a short clip from the new album. Listen with open mind.
I am surrounded by geniuses here at DBAWIS. Just today I found a band I had heard about but had never heard, Nobby Clegg & The Civilians, and haven’t stopped laughing yet. Actually, fellow writer Darrell Vickers finally felt I was ready for the bands videos (Vickers was a Civilian, methinks) and when I saw this one, it brought everything Vickers to the front of my mind. The man is a real writer and has a sense of humor (or as his wife probably says, a sense of something) beyond the norm. If you have not been searching for his columns here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say, you are missing something truly special. He has a book or two you can peruse (or purchase) as well. Here he was in his youth.
This, sports fans, is what’s known as creativity.
People keep telling me that protest songs are the past. Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton just proved that wrong with their two original songs (The Freeze and Hearts of Sorrow) from their excellent new album, Declaration. Down Under’s Bill Jackson has been proving it wrong as well. Here is Bring ’em On Home, another anti-war cry for peace. Australia, it seems, is leading the way back.
I am about to go on a Burns tear. You know. The Burns Sisters? Tom Mank, who just passed through Oregon and stayed here with wife and music partner Sera Smolen, passed along two CDs which have me jumping up and down. One, from 2012, is fresh and beautiful and full of melodic grace and harmony— Burns & Kristy‘s Caravan. This video just confirms what I have known— that Christian Rock is some of the best rock out there. They are working on a new album which should be ready soon. In the meantime, I can’t recommend this one highly enough, provided you love excellent production and songwriting and vocals which make you float away.
Andrew Hardin and Jeannie Burns hit up Gabe Rhodes to help them record Hardin Burns’ latest album, Down the Deep Well. I hate to admit that I know more about Rhodes than I do either Hardin or Burns, but this makes me want to correct that quickly. This is the title track but is by no means the only track worth hearing. Ten beauties here. It’s like they have finally found their place.
The first time I heard this song, it was The Yardbirds‘ version. Since, I have heard a hundred versions and it never seems to get old. This was released as a CD single. Very limited pressing. You might be able to find one at the Hardin Burns website.
And here is one incarnation of the Burns Sisters— circa 2009, I believe.
I’m giving Brian Lisik the award for the coolest album name thus far this year— Curtisinterruptedus. It cracks me up. Music is pretty good too.
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”